Mandatory sentencing, which began to take root in the 1970’s, became more popular through the 1980’s and 1990’s. It was really around the turn of the century that this trend started to reverse.
Since 2000, 29 states have changed their mandatory sentencing laws, generally curtailing them.
The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world on a per capita basis. Is it that there are a lot more crimes committed in the U.S.? Is it that law enforcement is really efficient? Or is it that a lot of people are thrown in jail and kept there for things that wouldn’t be considered horrible crimes in other countries?
It may be a combination of all of these things, although I think that law enforcement efficiency is probably at the bottom of the list.
The problem with discussing mandatory sentencing laws is that there are different things classified as crime. A murderer or rapist is put into the same category as a drug pusher who has not forcibly harmed anyone else.
The biggest problem with the American justice system (some would say “injustice system”) is that there are a lot of victimless crimes that are enforced. The situation is made worse with mandatory sentencing laws that hold these so-called criminals in jail for long periods of time.
Even in the case of a violent crime, there are still valid arguments against mandatory sentencing. Not all crimes are created equal.
There are a lot of odd situations that occur where someone may have been negligent or making a bad decision without intending to hurt someone else. There are many cases with gray areas. There are cases where a person may be convicted for bad judgment, even though he may have thought he was using self-defense.
The point is that there really should be flexibility in determining punishment when each case is unique.
Ironically though, mandatory sentencing laws can actually lead to more violent crime. If the prisons are filled up with people serving long terms because of drugs, then it can often lead to the actual violent criminals getting out sooner.
Prison crowding is a real problem. In our world today of tightening budgets, many state governments simply don’t have the resources to keep so many people locked up at one time. But mandatory sentencing laws are keeping many non-violent people behind bars and forcing out violent criminals.
This increases the likelihood of repeat violent crimes, as these are the people who tend to do the same thing over again. Personally, I would much rather have a person out of jail who is smoking crack in his house than a violent criminal out of jail, ready to prey on his next victim.
As a libertarian, I am against jailing anyone involved in drugs unless they actually hurt another person or encroach on another person’s property. But mandatory sentencing for victimless crimes is especially appalling, as it frees actual criminals and puts an unnecessary burden on society.
The more recent trend in relaxing these laws is a good thing. Let’s hope that more states continue with it.
If there is going to be any mandatory sentencing at all, it should be for actual criminals that hurt other people.